Developer Motion Twin might not come up on your radar as a studio you’re familiar with unless you’ve come across some of their smaller or lesser known titles on mobile and PC. In a year where Bloodstained was hitting shelves and expected to give people what they desired in that genre, Motion Twin has chosen to take an incredible risk in making their console debut a “Metroidvania” type game. However, Dead Cells is a brooding crawl through meticulously crafted dungeons accompanied by an incredible sense of stylish dread that never lets up.
As the title screen appears, you see this incredible structure that couldn’t be more reminiscent of Dracula’s castle from Castlevania. A boat gently sways by a dock at the foot of this mountain as if to signify your arrival and preparation for the challenge ahead.
The heavily embellished 16 bit art style has been done to death and yet, I’m still so entranced by just how much detail there is in the environments and how fluid the animations are. You can absolutely tell that developer Motion Twin did their homework, and had a lot of fun during the development process. For example, If you go into the options, you’ll notice that “diet” is listed. Select it to change the skins on the food found throughout the game for health pickups. Change it to something more vegetarian, or go for something more Castlevaniesque. Also a quick tip, head into the gameplay settings to toggle a few indicators that help in combat. Such as the ability to allow for a little flash to indicate when your dodge roll is ready. There are a lot of options to really customize your play style.
Players take control of a reanimated corpse who begins their journey in a prison with a rather large skeletal warrior in the background who appears to have been murdered. Naturally, you are shown the controls and you exit the cell to find a female warrior who’s just as confused about everything as you are. As you platform through and across the dreaded halls of this dilapidated structure torches of many colours burn as you dispose of skeletons and all of the other standard variety of monsters, large scorpions and bats. Mind you, the game possesses its own original style and fantastic pixel art. The music should also be complimented for the incredible atmosphere created by Yoann Laulan’s original soundtrack. Hand drums and rhythmic chants gently graze your auditory senses while ominous synths accent darker, more hypnotizing tones.
You start off equipped with a sword and your choice of a bow, or shield to fill your secondary equipment slot. But as you advance, you will come across other items like traps and grenades that are linked to your triggers (ZL,ZR) and will help get you out of tough situations.
Another interesting change to the formula is that your weapons and attacks have one of three colours assigned to them. Throughout the world, red, purple, and green scrolls can be collected to strengthen different attributes when applied to your character. The most important currency in the game however are Dead Cells which you collect from fallen enemies and are used to unlock certain weapons and abilities. More on that in a bit.
The most important aspect of a game in this genre particularly, is the fluidity of its control scheme. Motion Twin chose wisely in investing the necessary time and resources into getting the controls to feel just right. Dodging and striking all feel the way they should with the roll being particularly useful in combination with your bow and sword attacks. As a result, the combat feels extremely varied, fun, and is a joy to play. With several different enemy types and many death traps, you will eventually become overwhelmed, and you’ll die. That is when the twist reveals itself that separates Dead Cells from the rest of the pack. Dead Cells is also a roguelike (Metroguevania?!). Which means that not only are you starting from the beginning of the game after each death, but that the maps are randomly generated. Meaning the level geography changes with every failure and no two runs will ever be the same.
Remember the Dead Cells I mentioned earlier? Well the abilities you purchase with Dead Cells are the only advantages that carry over between deaths with a few exceptions, of course. Thankfully, there are a ton of secret areas and upgrades to uncover. Not to mention optional speed challenges that offer their own sufficient rewards. The great thing is that as I planned each subsequent run, I felt like I got better. There is nothing like getting past an area and seeing a new part of the game. It brings me back to a time when developers made you really work and practice in order to see what they had created. However, impatience was rewarded with death. That is to say that this game is challenging and I haven’t seen any way to adjust the difficulty. So be ready to put in the effort, especially when it comes to bosses.
I mainly played on the television as I noticed slight performance issues when playing on the go. It’s not game-breaking by any standard and doesn’t happen often, but it can be frustrating when trying to execute precise jumps or roll out of a bad combat situation when the lag spikes. Having said that there are so many little touches that are so well executed that it makes me think that there’s something going on in Bordeaux, France at Motion Twin that we should be paying attention to.
It’s interesting that so many people (myself included) are so hyped for Bloodstained: ROTN as the return to Castlevania long time fans had hoped for. So hyped that they hadn’t considered that a serious contender in the genre would come out of a studio that many people had never heard of. Fans of Koji Igarashi who are disappointed by the delay of Bloodstained into 2019 shouldn’t feel frustrated as Dead Cells more than earns its spot alongside some of the best entries in this genre. With the exceptions of some minor technical issues, this is a strong debut for Motion Twin and a release they should feel proud of.
Forged in the 8 bit era, Duarte can be found quietly contemplating the future of the games industry. Wondering what the exhilaration of digital achievement will look like on the next horizon.